Economy woes may push up Korea's high suicide rate

Wed Oct 22, 2008 4:59am EDT
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By Jon Herskovitz and Kim Junghyun

SEOUL (Reuters) - As South Korea's economic numbers take a turn for the worse, public health experts are worried about a wave of financially strapped people taking their lives in the country with the highest suicide rate in the developed world.

South Korea's suicide rate nearly doubled during the Asian financial crisis a decade ago from previous years with experts saying a leading factor was strain caused by job and income loss.

"Many people see this financial crisis as being a matter of survival and it could certainly lead to an increase in the suicide rate," said Kim Jeong-il, a leading mental health expert.

South Korea's export-driven economy has been hit hard by the current global economic slowdown, causing local shares to plunge, bankruptcies to increase and unemployment roles to swell.

With suicide the fourth-leading cause of death in South Korea and the leading cause of death among those in their 20s and 30s, including leading actress Choi Jin-sil last month, local media has dubbed the country the "Republic of Suicides."

The rate has gone up steadily over the past few years despite a government plan rolled out in 2004 that called for measures such as increasing counseling centers and teacher training.

The Seoul subway system has also stepped in by installing automated doors on platforms that open when a train has stopped at the station to prevent people from jumping on the tracks.

Experts said they see a link between a higher suicide rate and an increase in the country affluence because the new wealth has raised expectations in an already pressure-packed society to perform well financially and academically.   Continued...

<p>People wait for a subway train in Seoul October 22, 2008, at a station without automated doors on the platform. REUTERS/Lee Jae-Won</p>